For the uninitiated, Thomas Jefferson Education (hereafter TJE) is a method of homeschooling–a method very popular among Mormons.
TJE as a homeschooling method grew out of the pedagogy of George Wythe College (hereafter GWC), which in turn grew out of the educational vision of Oliver DeMille. (The majority of the following information comes from “the definitive history of George Wythe College” [hereafter GWCH] available in its entirety here.)
DeMille began his education at BYU but left mid-program under the advice of Cleon Skousen, who suggested he study at Coral Ridge Baptist Univeristy (hereafter CRBU). CRBU is (or was?) a ministry of Coral Ridge Baptist Church and is exempt from accreditation procedures because its courses are religious in nature.
DeMille was awarded the following degrees:
BA from Coral Ridge Baptist University in Biblical Studies
MA from Coral Ridge Baptist University in Christian Political Science
PhD from Coral Ridge Baptist University in Religious Education
The PhD was awarded 24 months after the BA was awarded. As far as I can determine, CRBU does not currently have a web presence; this Amazon review claims to quote from its old web materials but I cannot verify its accuracy.
DeMille then earned a JD from LaSalle University (but not the LaSalle); the GWCH notes that “He hadnâ€™t been impressed with LaSalleâ€™s program, but they had at least required serious study and he had learned a lot about jurisprudence.” Within a few years of his graduation, LaSalle was shut down by the FBI; the operator went to jail for fraud.
Then DeMille founded and became president of GWC and also was a law professor there. While the GWCH notes that he originally left BYU for CRBU because “Oliver wanted the real thing, not just the appearances of credibility,” DeMille then returned to BYU (after completing his BA, MA, PhD, and JD) to earn a BA. At some point in this chronology, DeMille also was awarded a degree from what he only later found out was a “diploma mill;” he destroyed the degree.
The following statement should give you a feel for DeMille’s worldview:
The New World Order, which George Bush has made part of everyday vocabulary, is world government. It is sponsored by Satan and his followers, whose power is based on secret combinations, secret oath-bound societies, world financial institutions, New Age religious organizations, and a number of global movements including humanism, communism, socialism, fascism, nazism, democratic socialism, feminism, Marxism, environmentalism, and monopolistic capitalism.
Or it would, but after publishing a book titled “Christ versus Satan: The New World Order,” he later decided that he had been mistaken and recanted. (The GWCH refers to his flirtation with extreme right-wing ideology as one of two “glaring mistakes” DeMille made.)
What of GWC itself? GWC is a very small–but growing–operation; although it offers a PhD in Constitutional Law, it has only one law professor listed on its faculty page. The GWCH includes this statement from a student about the school: “I didnâ€™t notice it was in a basement; all I noticed was that people were reading, talking, and thinking, but not necessarily in that order.”
The college established a core pedagogy and, after trying a few different names, settled on calling it “A Thomas Jefferson Education.” (More on its specifics later.)
Due to financial troubles, the college had to lay off its faculty in 2002. After a brainstorming session, a solution to the school’s financial situation was determined to be found in, according to the official history of the college, “three major concepts . . . : speaking, seminars, and products.” In other words, the college would continue to exist by making money off of selling its pedagogical vision, mostly to homeschoolers. Since developing this financing plan, GWC has achieved a modicum of growth and its financial distress has significantly decreased.
What do these speakers, seminars, and products look like? You can’t go very long on a homechooling email list without seeing an announcement for the “Face to Face with Greatness” seminar, which costs $350. I have not attended one, but they have been described to me as having the feel of a MLM scheme: you attend a free seminar in someone’s home where no “nuts and bolts” are given but you are promised great insight if you attend the expensive conference locally, where you are promised greater insight if you attend another seminar at GWC . . .
As far as materials, if you take a peek around the GWC bookstore, you will see that it bears little resemblance to a college bookstore but has the feel of a homeschool supply outlet. (I will say more about some of their materials later.)
While it appears that something like 90% of the TJE leaders and homeschoolers are LDS, specific LDS affiliation and references are not made and this has led at least one evangelical homeschooler to conclude that this is a marketing ploy since it is common knowledge that conservative Christians would not support a pedagogy developed by LDS and based on LDS thought. (I would note that I don’t think it quite fair to call TJE “based on LDS thought” but rather “based on a particular strain of LDS thought associated with people such as Cleon Skousen.”) Despite the fact that TJE claims no denominational affiliation, those interested in it eventually find out that is is an almost completely LDS enterprise.
So that is the origin of TJE. But what is TJE itself? The basic idea behind TJE is rooted in the fact that Thomas Jefferson was mentored by George Wythe and that great leaders are mentored, not run through the “conveyor belt” of a public school (or a similarly-structured homeschool experience). However, Thomas Jefferson was an adult with a college degree when he was mentored by Wythe. Before that time, he had the education standard to his day and status: a classical education, heavy on Greek, Latin, history, and memorizing boring things. So the actual “Thomas Jefferson Education” involved (1) a classical education, (2) a standard college degree, and (3) mentoring as a youngish adult.
Further, TJE is almost completely at odds with what Thomas Jefferson himself outlined as a proper education, which you can read about here, starting on page 271.
TJE itself is organized around seven main principles:
â€¢ Classics, not Textbooks
â€¢ Mentors, not Professors
â€¢ Inspire, not Require
â€¢ Quality, not Conformity
â€¢ Structure Time, not Content
â€¢ Simplicity, not Complexity
â€¢ You, not Them
Let me address some of these ideas:
Classics, not Textbooks
I firmly agree that literature and history are almost always better taught from classic books than from textbooks. However, a lot depends on how you define “classics.” While I’ve seen different definitions in different TJE materials, there is a list on classics on the TJE website; here are some of the 26 titles from that list:
Louis Lâ€™Amour, The Lonesome Gods
Ralph Moody, Little Britches
Oliver Van DeMille, A Thomas Jefferson Education
Spencer Johnson & Constance Johnson, The One Minute Teacher
Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Of course, “studying the classics” can mean various things; as one homeschooler put it:
the whole emphasis in studying the ‘classics’ in TJEd is on the self – how do I feel about this? What does it mean to me? There is no objectivity, no attempt to get inside the structure or themes of the book except on the most superficial level. For Homer, for example, the study questions consist of nothing but a list of terms and the question ‘How do these fit into your worldview’ – the implied answer being, ‘They don’t.’ Case closed.
Here is a statement from DeMille himself that is suggestive of how he interacts with the classics:
I canâ€™t remember who said it, I think it was Goethe, maybe it was Mendel, Iâ€™m not sure. One of the greats that I read said, “If you want to be great in any field, itâ€™s a three-step process. Study the greatest master of that field, learn all the rules that he used in order to become great, learn those, master those and know them well and then, forget the rules.
(If anyone has an accurate attribution for that sentiment, please let me know.)
I would note that some of the auxiliary materials coming out of the TJE movement, such as this book, have been well received by the (non-LDS) homeschooling community and, from what I have heard, offer good insights into incorporating the classics into homeschooling.
Mentors, Not Professors
The idea of having mentors for children (especially homeschooled children) is an excellent one. The problem is that TJE defines it in opposition to professors. Credentials are downplayed strongly in the TJE world (although GWC is currently seeking accreditation). Here is a link to the faculty page of TJE; I estimate that two of their faculty would be considered qualified to teach at a traditional university.
Inspire, not Require and Structure Time, not Content
(“Structure Time, not Content” means that the parents sets aside time as “learning time” but do not mandate which activities will be done during that time.)
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with DeMille:
ML: What about the type of unschooling family that believes that if the kid never wants to learn to read really well or write paragraphs really well, that we should not force him/her to do it, ever. What do you think about that?
OD: My personal opinion is, I think thatâ€™s fine.
ML: So what if a child was 16 and he couldnâ€™t write a paragraph or do math?
OD: It would be because he chose not to.
He does go on to say that he thinks this set-up would be unlikely in a mentoring situation. But when push comes to shove, DeMille doesn’t believe in shoving. What DeMille is advocating–even in Texas, which is known for its extremely lax homeschooling laws–is illegal. It is also, especially for LDS parents, immoral: we have an obligation to teach our children a basic core of knowledge that will allow them to do things such as serve missions, serve the church, earn a living, interact in the community, and enrich their minds, not to mention comply with prophetic counsel to get all of the education that they can.
You, not Them
The idea here is that the parent leads by example; the children should see their mother studying the classics on her own. That’s a great idea.
To conclude, there are significant numbers of people planning the entirety of their children’s educations around TJE and at least one charter school using these principles (see here), which the official history of GWC calls “an excellent charter school in Idaho” and which has recently lost its charter due to low test scores.
I believe that TJE is an impoverished pedagogy with dubious origins that, when implemented in a homeschooling setting, may be illegal in certain cases. The continued spread of TJE is an embarrassment to the LDS community and the homeschooling community. As a member of both, I encourage you to avoid TJE while at the same time I acknowledge that some of its practitioners are well-intentioned people providing their children with quality educations and that some of its auxiliary materials are useful.
UPDATE: Here is a link to a talk covering the basics of TJE by DeMille. (I believe that there are errors in it from transcription or digital conversion so we probably don’t need to hold DeMille responsible for that, but the content of this talk is must-read for anyone thinking about TJE.)
UPDATE TWO: Two readers with access to the original edition of TJE (including one TJE supporter) have confirmed to me that DeMille claims on page 22 that he graduated from BYU before he went to CRBU. I do not have the book and haven’t seen it with my own eyes, but anyone considering TJE should determine for themselves whether DeMille lied in print about his credentials and what this says about “leadership education” and “moral greatness” from studying the classics.
UPDATE THREE: From this website, you can read the file “DiplomaDeMille.doc.” It has links to all sorts of DeMille materials that I couldn’t otherwise find on the web, including this gem:
“No classic is more important than the Book of Mormon, yet is [sic] has never been used as a central curriculum like the Old Testament, New Testament and the Koran. Not only does the Book of Mormon contain all the necessary fields of study, at levels from Kindergarten to Doctoral studies, it also provides its own specific guidelines for how and what to studyâ€”both for religious and secular education. In short, it is the classic of classics, and itâ€™s about time to start utilizing it as such.”
That same document contains some delightful quotes from the CRBU (where DeMille claimed he got the best education) catalog, including this gem: “More people than any other singular language in the world use the Spanish language worldwide.” (Not only is the sentence a train wreck, but it isn’t true.)
UPDATE FOUR: DeMille’s conspiracy theory book is actually The New World Order: Choosing Between Christ and Satan in the Last Days and was published (with co-author Keith Lockhart) in 1992, after DeMille’s classical mentoring education and after he founded GWC. (So much for a “youthful mistake.”)
UPDATE FIVE: A blog for those who want to learn more.